The most bestest thing about liberal religion in 2011

Here it is — the most bestest thing about liberal religion in 2011:

1. I’m seeing less focus on administrivia and more focus on mission. I’m seeing less interest in clinging to power for no good reason, and more interest in developing greater spiritual maturation. I’m seeing more people smiling, and fewer people arguing.

In short, I’m seeing more and more religious liberals actually having fun while doing religion.

What could be better than that? Happy new year!

Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 8

2. For two straight years, U.S. Unitarian Universalists have focused a good portion of their social justice attention on immigration reform. I believe some of this focus is somewhat misguided, e.g., on the national stage we should be paying more attention to Alabama than to Arizona. Nor am I particularly interested in immigration myself — personally, I remain most interested in working peace, poverty, overpopulation, and workers rights. Nor do I believe that the so-called “Justice General Assembly” scheduled for June, 2012, in Arizona is change anything.

But c’mon, Unitarian Universalists have managed to focus their attention longer than six months on one issue. That’s incredible. If we could do that more often, we might actually make a difference in the world.

Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 7

3. This year, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) reported the fourth year of decline in religious education enrollment in congregations. This decline came after a couple of decades of steady growth. Worse yet, 2007 marked the highest number of births since 1961, at the height of the Baby Boom, which means we should be seeing an increase in the number of kids in our congregations.

Why is the fourth straight year of decline a good thing? Because now this is a trend that can’t be ignored, nor dismissed as a statistical aberration. Congregations are going to have to face up to the results of years of nibbling away at the infrastructure for religious education — cutting hours and salaries of religious educators, giving away religious education office and storage space to other age groups, deferring maintenance on classrooms, neglecting to place parents in leadership positions, and treating children and youth as a burdensome expense rather than as a central part of the congregation’s mission. And the UUA is going to have to face up to the results of cutting staff positions, producing uninspiring curriculum and other resources, not having parents in positions of leadership, andand treating children and youth as an extra expense rather than as a central part of our shared mission.

Not that I am silly enough to believe that congregations and the denomination are actually going to change their behavior, and begin treating children, youth, and their families as central to our reason for existence. But at least congregations and denomination can no longer pretend that they care about kids — no longer can they cover over the fact that they’re trying to make liberal religion into an over-55 community.

Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 6

4. I have found more and more people are willing to look at religion in new ways: more openly, with fewer preconceptions. I believe this is because ours has become an increasingly secular society, which means Christianity is less and less normative, which means that more people are more likely to look at religion without Christian preconceptions. The political and commercial realms are still several decades behind the rest of society, and politics and commerce both still claim Christianity as normative of all religion.

But forget about politics and commerce for the moment. Within liberal religion, I’m meeting a few people for whom religion is yet another form of cultural production, similar to other forms of cultural production like dance, writing, performance art and theatre, film, music, etc. I find it enormously freeing to talk with people with this understanding — and exciting, too, for when I talk with these people, all kinds of possibilities begin to open up.

Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 4

7. This year, for the first time, I feel as though Unitarian Universalism has made some real progress towards figuring out how to be a religion that’s not totally dominated by white folks. (Notice how I’ve qualified that statement: the progress we’re making is towards figuring out how to be less white.)

What progress have we made?

First of all, we’ve begun talking as though racism within Unitarian Universalism means more than just the white folks dominating the few black folks. After a couple of years of having a president of the denomination who is Latino, we’ve finally figured out that there are Unitarian Universalist Latinos, too. We have gotten to a point where we finally seem to understand that our efforts at eradicating racism have to go beyond the binary white/black racial divide.

Secondly, our collective anxiety seems to have gone down somewhat. It used to be that as soon as you started talking about race within a group of Unitarian Universalists, everyone would get so anxious that everyone would freeze up, and the conversation would either end or devolve into ideology and blame games. But this year, I’ve been at several public meeting where white Unitarian Universalists could talk openly about race and racism. (I credit Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed for much of this progress: he has an amazing pastoral ability to get people to talk openly and genuinely about race and racism without freezing up or getting strident.)

Those two things may not seem like much, but they represent some progress. And that’s both amazing, and worth celebrating.

Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 3

8. You know how people keep saying that young adults don’t want to go to church any more? You know those surveys that say young adults are drifting away from religion? Maybe that’s true considered across the vast mass of population of the United States, but I’m seeing something else going on. In spite of what the Baby Boomers are saying, I’m seeing twenty-somethings coming to our Unitarian Universalist church and liking it.

However, the twenty-somethings are doing church a little differently than the Baby Boomers and older generations. They don’t necessarily come every single week (though quite a few do). They like to use social media to relate to church, and to each other. Since many of them grew up without much or any religion, they don’t all have the same desperate angst about religion that many older Unitarian Universalists do. They seem a lot more relaxed about religion than older folks.

I admit I’m biased: I really like the current twenty-something generation. Taken as a whole, they’re pleasant, quite interested in exploring religion and spirituality, and very committed to social justice work. I hope they come into our churches and droves and take over.

Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 2

9. Rethinking districts

This past year, I have been encouraged that quite a few people smart people have continued working on how to refashion the inefficient and inequitable district system.

As it stands now, the Unitarian Universalist Association (the UUA) is the national association of congregations; it is an incorporated non-profit. At a regional level, we have what are known as the districts, which are all separately incorporated non-profits. The UUA provides field services by partnering with the districts to jointly hire field staff (primarily district executives and district program consultants). Thus, field staff are jointly supervised by, and paid by, two separate non-profit corporations: field staff report both to a supervisor at the UUA, and to the board of the local district. This is not only a grossly inefficient system, it is a system that is inherently a breeding ground for conflict.

Equally bad, a congregation will get a different level of services based on which district it happens to be in. Some districts have a full-time district executive, and that’s about it. Other districts have a district executive, a program consultant, both of whose salaries are partly paid by the UUA, plus an administrator, and other part-time staff such as a youth programs coordinator, etc. The fact that the UUA provides more money to field staff in some districts than in other districts is problematic. But then too, the number of congregations in a district varies widely, meaning that congregations in the smaller districts have more access to field staff than congregations in larger districts. All this represents an inequitable use of the UUA budget.

Over the centuries, Unitarians, Universalists, and now Unitarian Universalists have used a variety of organizational structures to link the national organization with the individual congregations: Universalist state conventions, the Western Unitarian Conference, etc. We have a long history of having to change these organizational structures in response to changing times. It’s pretty clear that we can no longer afford the inefficiencies built into the current district system; nor should we have to put up with the inequities. I don’t know what the new structure should look like, but I’m glad that there are smart people experimenting with ways to share field staff resources, communicate better, and provide a more efficient and cost-effective delivery of field staff services.

Click on the tag “Top Ten in 2011” to see other posts in this series.

Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 1

As we come to the end of the year, I’ve been thinking about the state of liberal religion in 2011. For once, I’m actually feeling kind of hopeful about liberal religion; for once, I’m feeling as though liberal religion might not die out in another 20 years. Mind you, it’s still touch and go, but I feel the odds of survival have gone up from two in five to three in five. And so I’m going to start a series of posts on the top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011.

10. The Great Recession

How can I possibly think that the Great Recession is one of the top ten best things to happen to liberal religion this year? Before I answer that question, I have to tell you a dirty little secret: the majority of Unitarian Universalist belong to a congregation with more than 250 members; yet half of all our congregations have fewer than 100 members.

Now I love small congregations, and have served three congregations with fewer than 100 members. But for the past forty years, while long-term economic trends have been forcing most of the non-profit world to become increasingly efficient, small congregations have, by and large, refused to change. Thus we see many small congregations that both refuse to grow to the point where they would be economically viable, and at the same time refuse to consider the possibility of cutting their budgets.

The Great Recession is forcing many congregations to face up to the fact that they are on the horns of a dilemma: they must either grow, or slash spending. After enduring nearly three years of a lousy economy, these congregations can no longer put off the inevitable: will they pass through the horns of the dilemma by cutting expenses, or will they wrestle the dilemma to the ground and vanquish it (at great risk of being gored) by learning how to grow the congregation?

Thus, for many congregation, the Great Recession has made their preferred third option — continuing to rest on the horns of the dilemma by changing nothing — untenable. This is actually fantastically good news: those congregations resting on the horns of that dilemma were actually stuck, going nowhere. It’s boring being in a stuck congregation, going nowhere. So with any kind of luck, the Great Recession is going to continue to force many congregations to get unstuck.

Mind you, getting yourself unstuck from the horns of a dilemma is not a pleasant experience. Those horns you’ve been stuck on are sharp, and when you pull off of them, you’re liable to start bleeding. But the horns were going to kill you in the long run: best to get the pain over with as quickly as possible, and if the Great Recession forces you to do that, then it is a fantastically good thing.

My only fear is that too many congregations will choose the easy way out: they’ll try to slide between the horns of the dilemma by cutting staff or building maintenance. Or worse, they’ll try to slide between the horns of the dilemma by increasing revenue in ways that allow them to avoid taking responsibility for raising their own money, e.g., excessive drawdown of endowment, excessive rental of building, involvement in harebrained moneymaking schemes, financial illegalities, etc. My hope is that the Great Recession is going to force a lot of congregations to focus tightly on their mission in the world, and to cut away all that is extraneous.

Next: 9. Dealing with race